Samuel Brace on the Marvel Cinematic Universe…
We are always told “safety first”. But fortune does indeed favour the bold.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a strange animal. On one hand it is comprised of characters that on paper can have very little in common, and have character traits that should lead to disparate tones; on the other, it is a shared universe behemoth, a homogenised collective that melds each individual film to fuse fluently with the rest. The name of the game here is consistency of tone. This is more important to Marvel than quality — though they have done a remarkable job of that as well, even if the quality that is consistent is a fairly mediocre one. Marvel are happy to let each individual film suffer if it benefits the collective, which in their case is the cinematic universe and the flagship team up Avengers movie. But Marvel is at its best when each film embraces its differences. The best it has to offer are the films that are most dissimilar to the rest. So then why is most of their content so hard to distinguish?
A healthy society is built around the notion that the individual and the collective are just as important as each other. The collective doesn’t dominate the individual and the individual doesn’t dominate the collective. If the individual succeeds and is living life well, then they can help those around them — which is a vitally important thing. Marvel with their films however seem to look at things slightly differently. To them the collective is the only thing that matters. The shared universe, their phases and the cohesion between their properties, take precedent. The individual Thor movie isn’t all that important to them. It’s just a means to an end. If they can make their movies look and feel just like each other, all sharing a similar structure, palate and tone — a tone that keeps that consistency between properties — they won’t be all that upset if Captain America 4 is a non event. The fruits available there are nowhere near as attractive to Marvel as the rewards of an all-encompassing blanket universe.
What is most baffling about this and really myopic when you think about it, is that Marvel’s best films are the ones that are most different to the rest of their catalogue. The films that operate at the highest standard are the ones that are the most unique. Films like Guardians of the Galaxy are not only different from the rest because of location, the bland environs of earth being replaced by a vibrant galactic setting, but also because it feels like an entirely different genre from anything else Marvel have made available. Captain America: Winter Soldier, again embraces something closer to a Robert Ludlum spy thriller than the typical ‘Marvel superhero genre’. These are the best films they have and they are that way because they are different, because they work well alone, because they can live, breathe and be enjoyed more than the others and without each other.
A film should always be able to stand alone; too many of their movies do not. You never want to feel like you’ve seen this before, too many of their movies do. The consensus best superhero movie — The Dark Knight — can attribute much of its greatness to the fact that it didn’t feel only like a superhero movie. It was a crime thriller that happened to have a main character dressed like a bat. Its subsequent success isn’t nebulous. These things are indeed connected. What Marvel will do well to learn, is that a successful individual film, one that stands on its own two feet, can contribute widely to the collective. Making each film under your umbrella a slave to the greater cause is not the way to reap the greatest of benefits. Allowing your Ant-Man, your Doctor Strange, and your Thor to be who they need to be, will not only improve the quality and rewatchability of those films, but will garner interest in the others. People that don’t know what to expect are more excited to see what comes next. This is an undeniable truth.
By thinking outside of the box, by taking risks, you open yourself up to untold opportunities and the greatest bounties. The superhero genre has already proved this to be the case. Marvel have already proved to themselves that this is the case. So why make the majority of your films safe? Why favour the collective? Why is the connected universe more important? One can understand wanting your shared world to look and feel like it is one and the same, that it is believable that each character can inhabit the same space, but surely we are at a point beyond this. Surely in a time replete with superhero movies, we get the concept of universe sharing and can embrace more films like Guardians of the Galaxy as opposed to two hour trailers for the next team up bonanza — which itself is no different than what came before. Marvel can have its longevity if it embraces change. It can live forever it incorporates more sub genres into its fold.
The individual is independent, and you can make your individual films independent from the collective while still benefiting those around it. Marvel has enough characters that are different from one another, so along with embracing their different abilities and looks, they should embrace the differing tones. People will take leaps of faith in world sharing inconsistencies to see more quality films that are unique in their own way. Marvel knows how to do this; it has already done it, so why hide what is interesting behind that which is not?